Welcome to the World of French Bureaucracy

We realized a couple days ago that we have to have visas to stay in France as long as we want to stay. France is part of the “Shengen” area – so named for the Shengen Treaty that covers this stuff – which includes almost all European countries.  A traveler can stay only 90 days in the “Shengen” area in a 180-day period. When a traveler arrives in his/her first Shengen country, both the 90-day and 180-day clocks start ticking. If a traveler reaches the 90-day visit limit before the 180-day clock runs out, he or she is legally not allowed to stay in any Shengen country until the 180 days is up. Doesn’t work to leave to another country and come back; that 180-day clock for the entire European area prevents that.

Now, my research finds a number of people who say it’s no big deal to overstay that 90-day limit. First, it’s unlikely that a country will track down someone who has overstayed, so the only time they’ll check is at Passport Control in the way out of the country. Second, most reports of people who overstayed say that there was no problem at Passport Control on the way out, that the people there didn’t even look at the dates that they entered the area. And third, most people who were identified at Passport Control as overstaying reported that the agents took no action. So, thought I, no reason to worry; we’ll just overstay by about 50 days and hope for the best on the way out.

But…here’s the problem: some people did report problems and those problems were serious, and a number of people report that Shengen countries have recently really picked up enforcement of the 90-day stay limit. What has been reported? Several reported being detained at Immigration Control long enough to miss a flight home. Others reported that their passport was stamped to indicate that they had overstayed and that they were not to be re-admitted to the Shengen area for ten years!

Now that last one really got our attention, as we hope to travel and stay in Europe for years to come. But also, we thought about being there for four or five months, worrying the entire time about what was going to happen on the way out of the country. So we decided to go legal and get what are called “Long-Stay Visas.”

Hence, our introduction to French bureaucracy. Here is what we have to do to get a Long-Stay Visa:

Gather a ton of information, including birth certificates, marriage certificate, financial statements, notarized letters saying that we won’t work (we’re retired! Why would we want to work?), rental agreements, proof of medical insurance (including emergency medical evacuation insurance), and a few other things. Then we have to fly to San Francisco for a face-to-face interview at the French Consulate. We give them $140 for each visa and, if all goes well, three weeks later we receive our visas. Then when we’re in France, we have to register with the Office of Immigration and Integration, have a meeting there at which we will receive a medical inspection (chest x-ray, blood draw and who-knows-what-else), pay them $450 per visa and finally, receive the stamps that will allow us to stay for up to a year. Total cost, including air fare to San Francisco: somewhere around $1,000 each. Made us think, for about ten seconds, of changing plans and returning at the 90-day limit. But, what the heck, we thought, we can do this, it’s only money, and it’ll be nice to not have to worry while we’re there.

But…sheesh!

(Added post-trip): We did not get these visas, on the advice of friends in France who said they never have had trouble traveling in and out of Europe on United States passports, even though their stays may be a year or more. Leaving France, after 145 days on the 90-day visa we were a little nervous, but the officer in passport control at Charles DeGaulle airport didn’t even look for the entry stamp; he found an empty page in our passports, stamped us out and that was that.

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